What Do You Do With Six Million Elves?


Sometimes when designing a campaign world, after I've setup the regions that inspired the new world to begin with, I find myself out of ideas for peripheral kingdoms. I don't have ideas for them so I steer the party away or I make them so generic that they're replicas of one another rather than truly unique places. When I find myself in this situation, I employ what I call the Principle of Extrapolation, which is exactly what its name implies: if A, then B. In this way you can build something special without even trying. It won't replace the lands you were inspired to create, but if your players decide to wander into that Big Empire to the South, they will find something worth seeing.

Sometimes when designing a campaign world, after I've setup the regions that inspired the new world to begin with, I find myself out of ideas for peripheral kingdoms. I don't have ideas for them so I steer the party away or I make them so generic that they're replicas of one another rather than truly unique places. When I find myself in this situation, I employ what I call the Principle of Extrapolation, which is exactly what its name implies: if A, then B. In this way you can build something special without even trying. It won't replace the lands you were inspired to create, but if your players decide to wander into that Big Empire to the South, they will find something worth seeing.

So you've laid out the boundaries of your nations, the geography is all set and it is time to flesh out your world with some people. To calculate populations and availabilities of various goods and services, I recommend reading S. John Ross' brilliant and eye opening article Medieval Demographics Made Easy. I have found more excellent resources on his site than I can possibly recount here (I equally recommend the Unlimited Mana article for both GURPS and other roleplaying systems, I swear by it). I have calculated the Big Empire to the South as being 3,333,720 square miles (roughly the size of India) with a population of 100,011,600 (by comparison, the principality the campaign will begin in is about 25,000 square miles with a population of less than 800,000). This is an ancient and highly civilized empire based loosely on Thematic Byzantium. The Emperor is a strong leader and a human.

I could leave it at that. The Empire isn't going to be a major factor for some time to come. After all, the PC's will have the orc invasions to fight right? Perhaps, but we are going to put the Principle of Extrapolation into action. For example, the only elves I've designed into the campaign world thus far are wood elves. I wouldn't mind having some urban High Elves running around, so we will arbitrarily decide the population of this empire is 6% elves, with most of them living in an urban setting. There are 6,000,696 elves in this country, fully integrated into human society, but with their own racial identity. How would they impact the country?

We will start by seeing the logical impact they would have on government. Elves live virtually forever. Logically, this would make them ideal advisors to the short-lived emperor, as they would have seen everything that has happened going back centuries or millennia. Fortunes raised by the elven merchants would not be split between children or broken up by death. Trade agreements between elves could provide steady incomes for millennium. Thus, the elves could easily become the mercantile class and many would be able to buy their way into the human aristocracy. They would also be dominant mages. A massive empire providing constant security to its citizens would allow an elven mage to literally spend several centuries intently studying magic with precious little interruption. The emperor is merely a puppet, perhaps even charmed, to his immensely wealthy and powerful advisors. The elves are slowly, being eternal and thus rarely in a rush, and surely becoming the masters of the empire. They are the most trusted advisors; the emperor is merely a mouthpiece for the elves in charge. They produce the most wonderful magics, expanding the knowledge of magic and dominating the colleges and guilds of wizardry. The elves are the rising merchant class; wealth and power flow into their coffers. They are expanding into the nobility, buying lower titles from impoverished or heirless families but it can't be too long before they advance into the upper aristocracy. This is an empire that could provide some interesting adventuring and a rather unique society, dominated by urban elves. Perhaps the elves are in the process of building a utopian society, acting as the guiding light for the humans. The PC's could; for example, battle plots by jealous and evil humans who regard the elves as threats.

What if this does not yield the result we were aiming for? After all, I was planning on an empire with a strong human emperor, not an oligarchy of elven advisors. We have three choices here. First, we can scrap what we have and start anew. Perhaps the elves are only 3% of the population and only live in a few Themes on the outskirts of the empire. They would not be the mercantile or the political powerhouses they are in our initial extrapolation. I want these elves to be more integrated into society though so I will disregard that option in this instance. The second choice is to maintain this timeline, but start our campaign earlier on it, perhaps only 100 or 200 years after the elves migration into the empire. The elves are still assimilating into human society. They are just beginning their new trades and urban lifestyles. Remember, to someone who has lived for over a thousand years, it can take a while to change your lifestyle. This campaign could center on why the elves have chosen to enter the empire and give up their sylvan lifestyles or why the empire would want this massive migration to occur in the first place. While this option provides some interesting ideas worth fleshing out, we will take the third option in this case. The third option is to take what we have and accept it as part of the past for the empire and then follow a path of extrapolation that will lead to the empire as we initially envisioned it; the elves as a powerful part of the cultural and financial life of the empire, but with the humans, and the emperor in particular, in absolute political control of the empire.

Having chosen our path, we will add some detail. The elves have it all: political might, economic might and magic might. How do we take this from them in a logical fashion and how much do we want to take away? The magical and political dominance go hand in hand; in order to strip the elves of their magical dominance of the emperor, their magic must be undermined and destroyed. Now we look for possible ways to tear them down. Who would want to see the elves lose power? Human mages, nobles and commanders, both of Imperial troops and of the Themes would have every reason to resent and fear the elves' domination. So a plot begins to form to break the elves. The plotters are fortunate for we are on their side. The major magical colleges and guilds are located within the massive capital city. This is for convenience sake as we shall soon see. The humans within the Imperial guild of Enchanters have come up with a plan to free the empire from elven domination. They let in other human mages as well as members of the army and nobility who are ready to overthrow the hated elves. The enchanters plan to make the Capital a no-mana zone (or a dispel magic zone, however you wish) by the creation of a powerful artifact whose powers and limitations we can worry about later. A date is set for the destruction of the elven power structure.

The conspirators achieve total surprise. Magic is shut off in the city and human mages, soldiers and nobles murder the mightiest of the elven wizards in a surprise attack. Meanwhile, the palace guards arrest and execute for treason the emperor's advisors. In the other major cities as well as in the various themes, the lords round up and arrest or execute powerful and overly wealthy elves. If you don't think that a medieval communication network could handle that level of secrecy, ask the Knights Templar. Friday the 13th has forever been an unlucky day after King Philip had the entire order in France imprisoned in a nationwide series of surprise raids. After the civil war which follows the Night of Liberation (or the Night of Blood, depending on your side in the conflict), the elves are banned from the nobility, but are given quarters in each major city to fortify and defend for themselves. They re-enter the mercantile business and some practice minor magics again. The new human masters of the guilds block elves from learning the mightier magics.

This raises 2 questions for further extrapolation: Why do the elves remain in the empire and what do the magic guilds do now that their homes are no-mana zones. For now, we'll just look at the elves. There must be a reason they do not return to their homelands. Logically, as there is still a Kingdom of the Elves in the wilderness and the Urban elves have not fled there for refuge. There must have been a falling out which caused the elves to move to the empire. The human population has been rapidly expanding into woodland areas, decimating the forest as their nations spread eastward. The majority of the elves shake their heads and tolerate the growth of humans, but vigorously defend their personal forests. A large number decide to positively influence the humans toward their conversationalist beliefs by giving up their homes and living amongst the humans. They move to the most civilized nation as that is the most likely to appreciate their advice. . . the Empire. The sylvan elves view this as a betrayal on par with the treachery of the dark elves. . . elves leaving their ancient homes to act as aids to the biggest threat to those same forests! The now urban elves have nowhere to go when they learn the hard lessons life has just meted to them.

Extrapolation, even in this narrow and focused zone, has provided very interesting results. The now cynical and jaded Urban Elves provide a new character type for PC's, there is much room for intrigue between (especially when the other magic guilds realize while they had to move away from the imperial seat of power to practice their crafts, the Enchanter's Guild, is somehow outside the effects of the no-magic shell around the capital. . . perhaps the enchanters are catching the Emperor's ear a bit more lately?) and unrest. The jaded elves view their human neighbors with a bit more suspicion and some humans are more arrogant and pushy towards the pointed ears now that they've been knocked off their pedestal. We even have some substantial history pre-written. Not bad for the hexes on the southern edge of the map that we filled in as an afterthought.

Man... this is good. You're good. Seriously... you're really good at this. lol

I am in awe.

You could write some sort of "Campaign Building via Extrapolation" handbook on this sort of stuff, it'd probably sell really well on DM/GMs hard-up to create a believable campaign world of this quality. I'd buy it in a heartbeat, I know that much.

Seriously, more of this sort of thing would be fantastic. Really excellent job.

Start from the simple and work outward. Only use the rules that you feel comfortable with, and only with an area that is simple enough for you to explain. As time goes on, learn and use more of the rules. Don't enter any disputes with players. Set the tone that what you say goes. Then, as time progresses, change rules or allow discussions on mechanics. Introduce other parts of your gaming world. Allow more realms to enter the minds of your players. Then, they can revisit other areas in the future. Dont get wrapped up in rules or books or anything. What matters is the story and your imagination. The rest is basically garbage.

(Continuing from J. Garner's comment)

...unless you're more comfortable doing something completely different. Some people prefer building worlds with an eye on simulation rather than drama. If starting simple works for you, go for it. If you'd rather determine the nature and population of every nation in your campaign world right from the start, then that's probably what you'd better do.

Also, it really helps when your players want to play in the type of game that you want to create. Remembering that has saved me more trouble than I care to imagine.

Mom: What do elves eat?
*Bebop goes into a long description, pauses then* "They're like the native americans of the fantasy world."
Mom: What maes the native americans of fantasy worlds diffrent from elves?
Bebop: The native americans of fantasy worlds dont exist.
*This elicits laughter from mother.*

This had nothing to do with the article, I just read the title to my parents and now we're involved in discussing fantasy polotics and my ttention has been utterly diverted away.

There's two basic methods of world development and they are extremes of each other: DaS (develop at start) and DiP (develop in play). The extreme of DaS would be to make up everything about the world before ever play begins; the extreme of DiP would be to start playing with only having having a basic idea about the world, and just make it all up as you go along. While there are those who champion the extreme position, most games and players favor a mixture of the two. This way you have a strong foundation (DaS) to build upon as the game progresses (DiP). At minimum, start with some pretty strong ideas about the world, each civilization/ culture inside of it, and leave the minor details to be filled in later.

And lets face it. No matter how much work you do, DIP happens.

In this case, you could of left the entire southern empire blank, to be filled in later... using only your basic assumptions. By doing the Das, by Extrapolation, you have created a great deal of depth and a strong foundation for any future development.

It is all about asking why or what happens next.

Josh, illegitimi non carborundum. I'm a DaS GM, myself, and I admire your combination of research and thoughtful development to handle the daunting conundrum suggested by the title of your piece.

MoonHunter is correct that DiP is unavoidable, but I find that as much DaS as possible provides a rich background that the players can get involved in and help develop. I've found that my players react most positively to pre-existing, identifiable NPCs and webs of sociopolitical entanglement. These things can be developed in play, but they're much easier to implement--and, I think, much more compelling and memorable--if you've already thought them through in as much detail as you can.

Kudos! I thank you also for the Medieval Demographics article. Is it too much of an importunity to ask where one might find the Unlimited Mana article you mention?

I'm happy to help! Enjoy!

The brilliant Unlimited Mana can be found here:

Link to a page with more of John's articles